Saturday, November 1, 2014

It Was Only a Car (And a Dog): Keanu Reeves in John Wick

I like surprises. I recognize this isn’t a universally-shared sentiment, but I think that a pleasant, well-executed surprise can lift the fog of a dreary day, and that’s enough reason to like them right there. Of course, if they’re also vehicles for the comeback of one of my favourite action stars, then they’re that much more enjoyable.

The diametric opposite to the origin story, John Wick portrays the seasoned killer character forced to come out of retirement. The film opens at the end, with a dying, post-rampage Wick (the seemingly-ageless Keanu Reeves, wearing patchy stubble and the same “whoa dude” haircut he did in 1989, except when it’s slicked back hitman-style) stumbling out of a bullet-riddled Escalade and replaying a rose-tinted memory of his wife on his iPhone.Then we run backwards in time and see his blossoming relationship, before his wife is overcome by an unnamed illness. There’s a brief funeral scene, Wick looking like a gaunt and grieving lizard all in black, and then he’s barely home again before a pet carrier is delivered to his door, with a note from his dead wife and an adorable puppy inside. Her posthumous gift is meant to allow him to grieve through the focus and love he would devote to this helpless creature, and they form an immediate bond as they shop for kibble and do therapeutic donuts in an airfield. But covetous eyes are watching, and soon, Wick’s car, dog, and peace of mind are under attack. As plots go, it’s stupid – but delightfully so. The film never lets a flimsy premise get in the way of fun or excitement. If I’m honest, I actually love the plot. This kind of film doesn’t need any more substance than “Bad guys kill Keanu’s dog; Keanu goes on murderous rampage,” and I’ll argue until I’m hoarse that a baby beagle is a much more plainly sympathetic character than some underdeveloped family-member-in-danger. If someone murdered my dog, I might feel the need for a little rampagin’ too.

The film’s wry, clipped dialogue communicates Wick’s character through intimation, reputation, and recollection –Wick is an infamous figure in New York’s criminal underbelly. Everyone in the film already knows him as a soft-spoken angel of death (literally nicknamed “The Boogeyman”), a hitman who made it out of the game only to be dragged back in by unfortunate circumstance. And when I say unfortunate, I’m referring to everyone else in the film who finds themselves in the path of this highly-trained human exterminator, from wetwork colleague Marcus (Willem Dafoe) to Russian kingpin Viggo (Michael Nyqvist). Only Wick’s polite demeanour and respect for the rules that govern mob politics occasionally save those foolish enough to cross him. For genre fans, Wick is brimming over with spectacularly kinetic action. I won’t venture a guess at the film’s body count, but it’s impressive, and Reeves moves with a matured form of the determination and ferocity he’s cultivated through years of stunt choreography and martial arts training. The film’s heavy with satisfying detail for those who care to look: there are no endless pistol clips; we see John laboriously (and sometimes impatiently) reload each time he runs dry. Though Wick’s judo skills are firmly on-point – the one-armed flip being an apparent favourite – grapples are as messy and desperate as they would be in reality. Wick is a master of the double-tap, a seasoned assassin’s assurance that an enemy is well and truly dispatched. It’s breathlessly exciting to watch him clear a room.

Keanu and his baby beagle

The effectiveness of these scenes, and of the movie on the whole, is due in large part to its star. Keanu manages to catch a lot of flak for his wooden vocal delivery and blank expression, but these are assets in the role of Wick, as they were for Neo in The Matrix – not to mention that he subverts expectations here with a few instances of palpable grief or terrifying rage. I don’t know if I just have a soft spot for the old surfer (due mostly to the strength of his personal character), or if there’s something about him that really is genuinely engaging, but it doesn’t matter – in the end, the audience was just as excited as I was to see him lit up on the silver screen in a big-budget bulletfest again. The quip-du-jour is that John Wick is the man you send to kill Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills, but I think it’s more accurate to say that John Wick is the film you release to put the Taken franchise out of its misery. Filmgoers bored to tears with grim, humourless, shoot-by-numbers fare like that will find refuge in the slick cinematography and biting wit of Wick; perhaps the film’s strongest element is the rich vein of playfulness pumping throughout. The film is not shy about poking fun at its ludicrous genre elements, and contains enough droll dialogue and fresh spins on old cliches to turn what for all intents and purposes is a hackneyed action picture into a surprisingly fresh and fun vehicle for Keanu’s comeback. John Wick is an experience in which everyone, including the audience, is in on the joke. And it makes for one damn fun night at the movies.

 Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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